In July 1977, East Greenwich celebrated its 300th birthday with a colossal two-week extravaganza called the Tercentenary. Planning started years in advance and in the months leading up to the actual celebration, men were urged to grow beards and both men and women were encouraged to procure period clothing. Tercentenary Chairman Gil Hempel’s genius was to cast a very wide net, involving hundreds of people and local businesses in the preparations so that by the time the celebration actually began, on July 17, there was tremendous buy-in by the community.
“East Greenwich was in party-mode for much of that July,” recalled Laura Sullivan, who served on the Tercentenary Book committee. “It was like being in the middle of River City, Iowa, a la The Music Man, with folks strolling the streets in costumes and something happening all the time.”
Some of the smaller aspects of the celebration were covered in Part One of this three-part article. We pick up now with the three big events of the Tercentenary – the ball, the pageant, and the parade.
The Grand Tercentenary Ball
Although many recalled it as one of the final events of the two-week celebration, the Grand Tercentenary Ball actually took place halfway through, on Saturday night, July 23. It was held on Eldredge Field, where a great tent had been set up. It didn’t even start until 9 p.m. and went until 1 a.m. and, according to the Rhode Island Pendulum, 1,400 people – 1,400! – attended.
Nancy Lemoi was on the committee that put on the ball, which was headed by Sue Day.
“We contracted for this giant tent from Mike Corcoran. We rented a dance floor and extra sections for the tent for the night of the ball,” she recalled. “Phyllis DeSalvo did flowers, Janet Essex helped with decorations.… “
Lemoi was the one to get the Jimmy Dorsey Band. They’d decided to try to get a big band to play and figured they needed to call New York and see if that was possible.
“I called the William Morris Agency in New York City and they referred me to another agency that said, ‘It looks like Jimmy Dorsey’s Orchestra can play for your Tercentenary Ball.’” said Lemoi.
What they got, however, wasn’t so much an orchestra. Rather, it was “a bandleader from New York and his trunkful of music from Jimmy Dorsey,” she said.
The bandleader hired local Rhode Island musicians to complete the orchestra. After missing his stop on the train in Providence (“he knew nothing of New England and didn’t realize the train would even stop in Providence,” Lemoi said), he ended up taking a cab from Boston to Academy Field.
“It was more expensive than we all wanted it to be,” Lemoi said of the band’s cost, but it was all worth it in the end. “The music was wonderful,” she said. “I understand one of the better parties that night were all the people sitting outside the tent … listening to the music.”
Lemoi said the weather that week had been “blisteringly hot,” but that on Friday, the day before the ball, a cold front blew through.
“We couldn’t believe our luck,” she said.
Many people wore costumes to the ball – the organizers even had a rack of costumes people could rent from – but Lemoi had had enough of period clothing.
“I initially bought a pretty piece of fabric and I made myself a colonial dress but I hated it. I took it apart and made a more contemporary dress with the material,” which she wore to the ball.
They even got coverage in the Providence Journal society page.
“I called the Providence Journal and got this lady on the phone and told her about the ball,” said Lemoi. “She and her photographer came down and took pictures of Sue and me with this rack of colonial clothes in front of courthouse. Everything fell into place.”
“On the Hill by Greenwich Cove” – A Pageant
For East Greenwich’s 250th anniversary celebration in 1927, there had been an “Historical Pageant” that began with the Dawning of Creation and went through the time of the Indians, the Coming of the White Man and a long section on the Revolutionary War, among other “episodes.” It was presented twice.
The pageant for the Tercentenary was called “On the Hill by Greenwich Cove” and it was presented six nights in a row.
While it followed the historical arc of the 250th anniversary pageant, this production was “a historical musical in two acts,” according to the program, written by Carey O. Miller.
Miller, the author, was not an EG native and wasn’t here all that long, but she left a mark. Mark Thompson said she was “like a comet through the town.” In addition to writing the pageant, she was the one who started the Luminaria tradition in Stone Ridge, having moved here from New Mexico.
The pageant included 14 “episodes,” and was supervised by local theater aficionados Mike Romano and Helene Lazarides. But the committee hired a professional, Edward Horner Jr. of Minnesota, to direct and choreograph the show. There were eight narrators, including Mark Thompson, who worked from a sound booth on the side while the actors on the large, multi-platform stage, mouthed the words.
“The problem was, there were three big screens set up and just before the show was to begin, a big wind came through and blew the thing down,” Thompson recalled. “We had to rebuild the whole thing in 36 hours. The show, of course, must go on, and it did go on.”
The cast and crew included nearly 250 people, including future Gov. Don Carcieri and his wife Susan. Gil Hempel’s wife, Lilian, was also in the pageant, as was Nanci Thompson of Briarbrook Auctions. She was 19 at the time.
“Oh, what a fun time that was! There were people of all ages involved in the pageant,” she said.
The Grand Tercentenary Parade
The sixth and final performance of “On the Hill by Greenwich Cove” took place Saturday night, July 30, followed by fireworks, as had been the practice after each performance. Then, amazingly, it was the final day of the two-week gala. It began with the Tercentenary Ecumenical Service under the tent at Eldredge Field, “a town-wide prayer service … giving thanks for our town’s past, and praying for its future.”
The parade stepped off at 1 p.m. – an 11-division behemoth that began at Frenchtown Road and went all the way to Division Street. Legend has it, the final marchers had yet to step off before the first division completed the route.
“The parade was monstrous,” said chief organizer Hempel. As commander of the Kentish Guards, Hempel had marched in a lot of parades, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the parade was his favorite event of the two weeks. Now 89 years old, Hempel was a bit in awe when recalling it: “I don’t know how I managed to put it all together.
Among the participants was the Avalon String Band (one of the Mummers bands from Philadelphia), Miss East Greenwich 1977 and Miss East Greenwich 1927, and a whooping 100 bands, floats and other attractions.
“Don’t you dare miss this one!!!” read the Tercentenary program of events. Seems the public took those exclamation points seriously – the Pendulum reported more than 100,000 turned out to watch.
“That was a monumental parade and I’ve often regretted being in it because I didn’t get to see it,” said Alan Clarke, who presided over the Rhode Island Pendulum’s float.
The Rhode Island Pendulum’s Tercentenary Parade float, with Alan Clarke, far left, and Bill Cookson, second from right. Credit: Barry Quimby
Even Buddy Cianci – then in his first turn as mayor of Providence – showed up.
“Somebody invited Buddy to march in the parade and he landed in a helicopter in the parking lot” at Frenchtown Road, said Nancy Lemoi. “He created quite a stir and the police were furious!”
The final day was capped by one last fireworks display at Eldredge Field – the biggest yet.
“It was one of the best fireworks presentations that I have ever seen,” recalled Nancy Lemoi. “It was spectacular and it was a spectacle.”
Tomorrow, 1977: The End of East Greenwich, Small Town U.S.A. – Tercentenary, Part 3
Author’s Note: I learned about the Tercentenary only two months ago and was so amazed by its breadth and earnestness that I just had to learn more. My husband and I moved to East Greenwich in 1989 and the town we moved to was not the same town as that town that pulled off the Tercentenary a mere 12 years earlier. I’m grateful to all those who shared their recollections with me. This is but a sliver of the story, but I hope it is the beginning of an archive to remember those remarkable days in July 1977. If you have stories to tell and photographs to share, please let me know ([email protected]). I’m happy to post an addendum!